Top Air Malta executives have expressed serious concerns about the government’s handling of negotiations with Alitalia fearing that the national airline may be turned into a feeder airline serving Italy’s national air carrier.

These concerns, which have been doing the rounds since the government last month announced a preliminary deal with Alitalia to buy a 49 per cent stake in Air Malta, were yesterday also vented publicly by tour-ism operators.

The Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association (MHRA) questioned the deal the government is negotiating with the Italian carrier, warning that “no mistakes” can be made.

The industry’s concerns on the negotiations being carried by the government behind closed doors followed surprising comments made by the president of Alitalia, Luca Cordero de Montezemolo.

Speaking during an ‘Alitalia Day’ organised by the airline, the former Ferrari chairman said the Italian carrier will invest “not even a euro in Air Malta”, and that the deal being negotiated was a ‘zero-risk’ deal for the Italian airline.

At the same time, he said that Alitalia could make good use of Air Malta as it would give the struggling Italian airline “good connections with Sicily”.

According to Mr Montezemolo, the deal with the Maltese government may even be decided at the end of next month.

Speaking to this newspaper, a number of top Air Malta officials described Mr Montezemolo’s declarations as a confirmation of “something which we were fearing”.

It raises serious doubts on the viability of the deal

“It is now appearing very clearly that Alitalia is interested in using our small eight-aircraft network as its own feeder airline,” a top executive said.

“Alitalia does not really operate regularly to southern Italy and North Africa and this is why they are interested in getting their hands on Air Malta,” another executive said.

A feeder airline, also known as a regional airline, normally carries passengers from destinations not served by large carriers to hub airports for an onward journey on national or international airlines.

In his comments, Mr Montezemolo indicated that “Air Malta may provide good connections [to Alitalia] from Sicily”.

Asked yesterday to state clearly whether through the deal being negotiated with Alitalia, Malta’s national airline might become a feeder airline, Tourism Minister Edward Zammit Lewis avoided giving a reply.

Instead he diplomatically said that negotiations were still ongoing.

“A decision regarding the due diligence process is expected in June or July.

“At that point, if a decision to proceed with the talks is taken, a business plan will be prepared and evaluated,” Dr Zammit Lewis told this newspaper.

“The government is committed to communicate all milestones once completed and will announce news regarding the new business plan once the talks arrive at that stage,” he said.

Dr Zammit Lewis reiterated that the MOU signed with Alitalia will be made public next Wednesday.

On its part, the MHRA dubbed Mr Montezemolo’s comments as “surprising” and “concerning” and questioned the process adapted by the government to choose Alitalia as its strategic partner over other airlines.

“Allegedly giving away Air Malta through a strategic alliance to a foreign company which itself is facing financial challenges for ‘zero euro’ raises serious doubts on the viability of the deal,” the MHRA said.

Etihad Airways currently holds a 49 per cent stake in Alitalia and unofficially calls the shots at the Italian airline.

If it goes through, the deal will also see Air Malta reducing its staffing levels.

ivan.camilleri@timesofmalta.com

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